The left Achilles strain that forced me to DNS at Ice Age was a stubborn little bugger. Stubborn injuries for stubborn people. I suppose that’s what the running gods had in mind.
But I knew better than to sulk and feel sorry for myself. Nothing good could come of that. So I remained patient, stayed active in my recovery, and hoped for a long, healthy summer of solid training.
Four and a half weeks and several short walk-jogs later, I finally had full range of motion back in my left Achilles. I could run without pain. I could get back in the game.
And my health came just in time to pace my friend and client, Nate Pualengco, at the Kettle Moraine 100 Mile Endurance Run. His first 58 miles were smooth as could be, but when he came into the 63 mile Nordic aid station, he was limping from debilitating quad cramps. His crew and I attended to him with massage, ice and fuel, but I could see in his eyes that he was having doubts.
Before he could think about them much more we hurried him up and whisked him away, back into the relentless roller coaster that is the Kettle Moraine forest. I ran with him for the next 38 miles, where we encounted quite a few ups and downs: more quad cramping, sleep deprivation and general fatigue. But all of that suffering set the stage for one of the most impressive final 7-mile strikes I’ve ever seen in a 100 mile race.
Smelling the finish line, Nate turned off all pain sensors and started running hard. Passing people right and left, he pushed even harder. Two and a half miles from the finish, he slammed on the accelerator and it was an absolute thing of beauty, even if I saw most of it from about 50 meters back.
I had to dig deep myself just to keep him in my sights.
But when we got to the finish line it was all worth it. What a glorious scene it was to see him overcome the mental demons and physical pains that are so much apart of completing 100 miles on one’s own two feet. The fact that he finished it with a new personal best time of 27 hours 30 minutes for the distance was just the perfect ending.
For me, it was just the beginning of what I hope will be a long summer of training in preparation for my very first 100 mile race this coming November at the Pinhoti 100. Next up, I’ll be pacing my friend Siamak again, this time at the Mohican 100 on June 21. The first time I paced Siamak to a hundred mile finish was at the iconic Western States 100 last year. His performance on that weekend was nothing short of brilliant, so I expect more of the same. This will also be my second time pacing the Mohican 100, as I had the honor of getting Supergirl to the finish there in 2012 in what was my very first pacing experience.
It’s two years later, and I’m now a perfect 6 for 6 in getting my runner to the finish line of a 100 mile race (no pressure, Siamak). Since Kettle, I have been stewing in anticipation to tackle the last 50 miles of the ominous Mohican forest. Mohican is hard. Extremely hard. But in training and in life, it’s the hard that makes the easy so sweet.
Let’s get it on.
After a 2012 that saw me break beaucoup barriers and dream of crossing the marathon finish line with a 2-hour-something time, it would be easy to assume that 2013 was a letdown year for me. I didn’t come close to my goal time for 26.2. I suffered through a long recovery from ITBS. I got a nasty case of Achilles tendonitis.
But just like in any other discourse, life is what you make it.
So, positively speaking:
I negative split the marathon for the first time while simultaneously experiencing triumph through tragedy.
Despite the heavy rain and relentless terrain, I answered the bell for all 50 miles of the Minnesota Voyageur and had a kickass time doing it.
I PR’d the half marathon in one of my favorite local races.
I played in the woods with my friends, again.
I was reminded to be grateful for what I have, to live in the moment, to enjoy every second of life as it comes.
I volunteered at the Earth Day 50k, the Des Plaines River Trail 50 Miler and the inaugural Naperville Marathon, perfecting the art of cowbell ringing in one hand while handing out aid with the other.
I had another race report published in Ultrarunning Magazine (October issue).
I spent hours and hours pounding pavement, traversing trails, meditating through movement.
And I fell in love.
Thank you, 2013. My graciously heartfelt smile remains from ear to ear.
Happy New Year!
In this year’s comeback from last fall’s IT band injury, I have been doing a lot of sparring at the gym. It’s a good thing I have been doing so, because the only thing that properly prepared me for the type of beating I would take at the Minnesota Voyageur 50 Mile Race on July 27, 2013 was getting punched over and over again by dudes bigger and stronger than me.
And just as it goes in the ring, sometimes getting your bell rung can be the most beautiful thing in the world.
Pre-Race, Friday, July 26, 2013
First thing in the morning and my heels hit the ground pain free.
This is good. This is very good, I say to myself.
I haven’t run a step since Saturday and the extra rest has given me full motion in my ankles and heels, something I am going to need as I mentally and physically prepare myself for Minnesota Voyageur. The Achilles pain that scared me most of the week seems to be absent and with this added rest I feel confident about tackling the tough, gnarly course.
My friend, Kirsten, who I met last year at Clinton Lake, shows up at my house with Jim, another ultrarunner from central Illinois, and all three of us exude excitement with a hint of anxiety as we load the car and begin the 8-hour trek north towards the Minnesota wilderness.
The drive is long and confusing — long because it’s 480 miles from my house to Carlton, Minnesota; and confusing because it’s 55 degrees and pouring rain most of the way. Between the spry conversation and the giddy storytelling of ultra-adventures past, I make sure to look at my watch every now and then just to remind myself that it really is late July.
We arrive in Carlton and walk to packet pick-up shivering in the cold, wet rain.
The high for tomorrow is 57, says Jim as I pinch myself hoping to wake up in a warmer state. Supposed to be 42 at the start.
With our race shirts and bibs in hand, we get news that this year’s course will be different than the original one. Due to some washed out areas and bridge construction, the course has been modified from the one that made it famous, but we are assured that all the familiar Voyageur sections will still be there, including the infamous power line section of steep, brutal climbs.
We head back to the hotel, eat dinner and then commiserate on the less-than-summery skies mother nature will provide us tomorrow. We all agree that the cooler temps will make for nice running weather, but the chilly rain will make things quite sloppy. This isn’t going to be an easy fifty (are any of them really?), but the good news is: we are all prepared for a fight.
Jim, you ready to finish your first 50 miler? I ask.
Yes, I am, he emphatically replies.
More than satisfied with his confident answer, I wish he and Kirsten both a good night, turn off the lights and fall fast asleep.
Pre-Race, Saturday, July 27, 2013
*BEEP BEEP BEEP*
WAKE THE HELL UP, JEFF! says my brain to my body as I desperately reach for the “off” button on my smartphone’s alarm clock. I look around to see Kirsten and Jim are rising along with me.
Who thought it was a good idea to run 50 miles this morning? Jim asks.
Excellent. We’re cracking jokes well before the crack of dawn and that’s a great sign. Unfortunately, the weather report has jokes too, unwavering from its estimated high of 57 degrees. And right now, as I shove two bananas and a Clif Bar down my throat in the black of morning, it’s a balmy 43 degrees.
Armed with this bit of irony, the three of us ready ourselves with our own pre-race rituals. I take some time to get my head right, to focus my mental game on pushing my physical.
There is no question that I am stronger, right now, than I ever have been before. This increased muscle mass was born out of less miles and more rounds in the gym, so while I know the body is there for a full-on physical adventure through the woods, I still have questions about my endurance, especially over the course of a demanding, difficult race like I will face today.
The only other question mark entering my psyche this morning is whether or not my heels will hold up on this challenging terrain. I won’t know until I get going, so it’s no use worrying about it now.
Instead, I focus on being confident, and sometimes, that’s all it takes to get my stubborn ass moving the way I want.
After a 25-minute drive and some nasty, watered down gas station coffee, Jim, Kirsten and I find ourselves shivering together in the Carlton High School parking lot, still scratching our heads at the unorthodox July chill. It’s 47 degrees as we prepare to toe the start line and I overhear another runner say it was 80-something last year.
What a difference a year makes, I say as I stick my hand down my shorts to slather Vaseline all over my nether region, further exemplifying why I love the ultra community so much. Here I am coating my crack with grease mid-conversation and no one seems to notice, or care. It’s just part of the game.
So too is putting yourself in arduous predicaments. In fact, THIS is what I live for — the challenge of NOW — and I know that, no matter what, this entire day is going to be an adventurous exercise in taming doubt and experiencing the present, through every possible channel.
We pose for a final pre-race picture before the race director gives his speech.
A couple of good-luck fist bumps later and…
Slow, slow, slow.
Let’s go slow.
I repeat the above mantra as I settle somewhere in the middle of the pack.
My goal for today is to FINISH, of course. That’s always my first goal of any ultra distance race. But I would be a liar if I didn’t admit my sincere desire to run a sub-11 hour race today. After my dreamlike Western States pacing experience last month, I really want to start putting my name in the Western States lottery, and to do so I need to qualify with a sub-11 hour 50 miler. Because I plan to focus on Chicago Marathon training after this, I likely won’t be running any more 50s this year, so this is my one and only shot.
But considering how tough this course is, combined with the elements of rain and chill, I know that it is going to be nothing short of a fight to achieve that.
I’m also unsure about my heels. And as we start the short jog on paved bike path toward the trail head, my left Achilles starts giving me that wonky, sharp-YOW-YOW-give-out sensation. It’s not as serious as it was before, but it’s there, so each step seems like a question mark. For now, I try to be aware but not obsessive.
Once we turn onto the trail, the conga line of runners keeps my pace in check. Here there are jagged rocks and technical terrain alongside the gorgeously flowing St. Louis River. My heart rate is low. I’m just getting warm. Enjoying the slow.
You have all damn day out here, Jeff. No need to waste yourself now, I tell myself.
By the time we reach the multi-track leading to the first aid station at Leimer Road, my heels are all warmed up and won’t be an issue the rest of the day. Halle-ultra-lujah!!!
At the aid station, I grab a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and some chips that I wash down with a half-water-half-blue-Powerade mix. My most successful fueling strategy for ultras thus far has been to go on the “see food” diet, eating whatever I see that looks/sounds good at the time, favoring savory over sweet as much as possible. Yesterday I made sure to avoid all dairy products (they tend to make my gut a crap-shoot *rimshot*), so as long as I eat a little bit of real food at every station, supplemented with the occasional gel when I need it, I should be okay.
The aid station personnel kick ass with their awesomeness and before I head out, I tell them I can’t wait to see them again, some 44 miles down the road.
The Minnesota Voyageur is a wild, picturesque out-and-back course from Carlton to Duluth. I know I need to average 12-13 minute miles the best I can to finish under 11 hours; and while this seems like it should be no sweat for a three-hour marathoner who averages 7-minute mile pace in a road marathon, maintaining a 13-minute mile pace over this rugged terrain is going to be tough.
There are going to be spots along the course where running is just not possible. Hell, after hearing grizzled vets talk about what was in store for us this morning, I know that there are going to be spots along the course where even power hiking will be impossible — spots where we’ll be lucky to put one foot in front of the other without breaking something!
This is why instead of darting up ahead and through the conga line of mid-packers like I normally would, I just stay right here, somewhere in the middle, letting the natural pace of things rule. I am in no hurry. In fact, at Ice Age and Howl at the Moon last year, I suffered greatly from running too fast too early, so I know better and do my best to keep my heart rate low and my smile wide as I take in the beautiful forest all around me.
In every direction I see the greenest green. Luscious leaves of birch and pine soar high above me, the woodsy waft of nature fills my nose. This section out of Leimer Road is quite runnable, so I find a nice, easy, comfortable gear and just ride it steady, happy to be alive. I cruise along with other runners until there is a sudden halt in the line.
What’s going on? I ask, leaning my head to the side to see if I can see what the hold-up is. Before anyone can answer I see we have reached a shin deep stream crossing and some people up front are trying to figure out how to best get across.
It’s drizzling, it’s chilly. The trail is soaked, soggy and sloppy. It’s an absolute given that the feet are going to get and stay wet all day, so I bust out of the line and charge to the front, happy to jump in and out of the stream, off and running on the other side. Besides, my feet are protected with 2Toms BlisterShield Powder and Injinji socks, a combination that hasn’t let me down yet, so YEEEEEE HAAAAAW!
After another good stretch of running on flat, grassy trail, I cross another stream in much the same way — banging on through without a care in the world, happy to be a part of this lovely forest. I am leap frogging with several friendly faces, but unlike most other races, I am not in a real talkative mood. I’m feeling more introspective, happy to live this particular adventure with my thoughts to myself.
This is pretty suiting, since I’m thinking about a lot of people today, especially my friends running the Burning River 100 Mile Race in Ohio. Thinking of them doubling the distance in similar rainy conditions motivates me to move along the best I can, to pace myself responsibly and to enjoy the experience.
During an ultra, it’s pretty common for me to question myself, to wonder why I keep going out on these long, time-consuming, muscle-busting journeys that test my physical and mental abilities unlike anything else. When such doubt enters the mind I remind myself how much my face hurts from SMILING.
I absolutely love it. What other reason do I need?
The Bull Run aid station greets me at the 8.1 mile mark. I grab some more peanut butter and jelly, some bananas and an orange slice before I kick out down the road.
And yes, it is a road. A long, welcoming downhill, road. My instinct is to bomb down it, but I’m working smart today, so I just take it easy, chilling on the ride down.
What’s really cool is that I can see, about a mile down the road, all of the runners ahead of me. What’s not cool is that I know I’ll have to traverse UP this damn thing later in the race, with 39 miles in my legs.
But today we’re working with the NOW, and that’s all that matters. Right now, I’m having a great time. Legs feel good. Heels feel good. Head feels good. Out on the open road it’s a bit chilly with the breeze, but otherwise I’m quite comfortable in my long sleeve technical tee and trademark short-shorts. Best of all, I’m right on time with my splits as I reach the end of the road and say hello to the good folks at the Chambers Grove aid station. More peanut butter and jelly. More half-water-half-blue-Powerade mix. More bananas and oranges.
Nom nom nom.
A quick thank you and cap tip later and I’m off to tackle the first of the infamous power line sections.
Now begins the climbing. Seriously.
Minnesota Voyageur and the power lines might as well be synonymous, because in my course study before the race, I couldn’t find any source that didn’t mention them both. Notoriously steep climbs equipped with the loud background buzz of high voltage, these hills test my patience as much as my body. But I am ready for both.
After I crest and coast down the last one I turn back to the nice woman behind me and say, Well, that wasn’t so tough.
Ha! she replies, we haven’t even gotten to the big ones yet.
Before we get there, we still have to travel through some more winding up-and-down trail. The ground is wet. It’s still drizzling off and on. But the footing is still pretty good and I make sure to take the downhills easy as opposed to trucking right down. With the grade as high as it is on some of these downhills, bombing them just isn’t possible and my quads probably couldn’t take it later on, even if I could. Caution ain’t a bad idea.
Several times we reach a point where the trail has been “closed” for “our safety”, except that the course markings lead us right through said signs and accompanying fence blockage, not bothered by whatever possible danger may lurk beyond.
The race director has jokes too! Ha! I love it!
As I reach Peterson’s aid station (where they have Ginger Snaps, holy-effing-YES!), I notice my right hip is aching pretty loudly. I stuff my face with cookies, bananas and oranges while I gently massage the bursa sac that likes to get inflamed sometimes during these crazy outings. It’s a nuisance, yes, but a nuisance I can and WILL overcome.
I go through more runnable, grassy trail before I hit the second section of power lines. I know I’ve reached the second section because I’m now looking straight up at the beasts I have to climb and my neck is not a fan.
Here’s where all those pistol squats are going to pay off, Jeff. Here’s where Kettle Moraine and Western States and Big Bertha repeats are going to pay off. Keep your head down, your confidence high and just get the job done.
Up, up, up.
Gingerly. Carefully. Slow enough not to tumble and break my face… down, down, down.
Up, up, up. Down, down, down.
Over and over.
As I cautiously crest a climb, clinging to some foliage to keep from teetering back towards my death, I hear off in the distance RUNNER COMING THROUGH!
What the —
It’s the youthful race leader, coming towards me, blazing by with ease and the most patriotic red, white and blue short-shorts.
Stars and stripes forever!!! I holler as I wave him through. He smiles and thanks me. Wow, the dude isn’t even sweating. He’s 10 miles ahead of me and not even sweating!
TEN MILES! HOLY SHIT! I’M NOT WORTHY, I’M NOT WORTHY!
I will say this to myself again as the rest of the leaders come through behind him. Meanwhile, it’s all I can do to keep moving forward, up and down the last power line before I make it to the Beck’s Road aid station at mile 21.
I have a drop bag here, and while the idea of changing socks and clothes sounds good right now, I’m going to wait until I get back at mile 28 to consider any of that. I still have to get to the turnaround before 11:30 a.m. to be on target with my sub-11 goal, and I have lots of hard work to do before that so I can’t waste any time.
I grab some grub, refill my handheld bottle and boom, I’m off.
Here is a mile and a half section that is flat as a pancake. From studying the course beforehand, I know that this is a place I really gotta push the pace because it’s the calm before the storm that is Jarrow Beach (pronounced JAH-row) — a section I’m told will “chew me up and spit me out”.
I try to run fast, pumping my arms as hard as I can to see if that will get my motor running. The problem is, I’ve been stuck in low gear all day long and now anything more than a steady jog seems impossible. Just as I work myself up to feeling good and speedy, I reach a defunct railroad bridge reminiscent of a Stephen King novel.
As I cautiously tip toe my way across, all the momentum I just built up on the flat ceases. The rain starts to come down a little harder too, further insulting my efforts.
But as soon as I get over the bridge, I have more fast moving terrain to spring me forward, making me feel pretty confident as I cruise along, taking in the sights and sounds. I’ll be at the turnaround soon and it looks like I will get there before 11:30.
My head is filled with happy thoughts.
I’m having a blast.
I’m enjoying the ride of life…
Until I find myself at Jarrow Beach.
Jarrow-effing-Beach. Where the hell is the sand? Where are the bikinis? Can’t I even get a mai-tai?
This ain’t no damn beach, this is a bone-breaking ankle trap intent on taking me down! If the power lines slowed me to a power hike and the dilapidated railroad crossing slowed me to a tip toe, the jaggedly edged boulders protruding through the earth at Jarrow Beach force me to a crawl.
No hyperbole here. I’m definitely crawling over the rocks. Sometimes I can stand enough to tepidly place one foot on another rock while I desperately search for a place to safely put the other, but it’s raining and the rocks are all covered in slippery moss making this traverse quite a challenge on my entire body.
Two guys I’ve been yo-yo-ing with in the race have caught up to me now and the three of us curse like sailors as we try to get through Jarrow without killing ourselves. I can’t help but slip and fall a couple of times. I twist an ankle — not badly, but enough to notice. I slip and land on a jagged edge, bruising my arches, toes, elbows, wrists and heels.
There is no running here. There is only surviving.
For the first time all race, I am extremely hot and sweaty. But we must soldier on.
Together, the three of us — me and two strangers who must like pushing themselves just as much as I do — fight through this section, one rock and misplaced foot at a time.
Our reward for getting through Jarrow Beach is some more flat terrain before the turnaround. I try to bust out with some speed, but my bruised and achy feet aren’t so excited about that, so I just move the best I can.
I reach the Magney aid station, halfway through the race, at 11:15 a.m. Right on target, but not without damage.
Most of all, I’m feeling pretty tired — an all-body tired, the kind you get from being on your feet all day climbing insane hills and picking your way through a boulder laced killing field. But my left arch is particularly achy from a poor landing and my right hip bursitis is really aggravating now. Besides that, both of my piriformis muscles are inflamed, causing that all too familiar butt ache to pulse to the rhythm of my heart.
But my stomach is doing well. I’m pissing clear and often. And I’M HALFWAY DONE, HUZZAH!
Off I go, knowing that I have to go through that damn Jarrow Beach again. Having done it once, I now have the confidence that I will get through it no matter what, and that my reward will be another mile and a half section of fast, flat terrain where I can really make up some time.
While I make the second pass through the boulders, I start to see all the other runners coming back towards me on their way to the turnaround. This offers me some delight. It’s always nice to see friendly, encouraging faces on the trail during a long effort. It’s even nicer to know I don’t have to do the boulder field again.
I get through with just minor scrapes and bruises this time and bust ass over the railroad crossing and back onto the long stretch of runnable trail. I’m moving much faster this time, despite the aches and pains, because I can’t wait to get to Beck’s aid station where I have the ultra-cocktail of Ibuprofen and Red Bull waiting for me. I also plan to change socks, shirt and hat, because the ones I’m in now are disgustingly soaked.
Sometimes, just putting on a dry shirt can make all the difference.
I reach Beck’s and as soon as I locate my drop bag, the sky opens up and, as if to laugh at my plan of getting into drier clothes, it begins to POUR RAIN!
What can I do but laugh?
Haha, you got me, Minnesota Voyageur. I know this wasn’t ever gonna be easy. Trust me, I get it. I get the joke now.
I’m in the middle of changing socks anyway, so I complete the change as planned and top it all off with my ultra-cocktail and some Icy Hot on my hip. I kick out down the trail as the heavens continue to rain down.
I don’t really mind the weather since I’m under canopy for the first part after Beck’s. But when I reach the bottom of the first power line section on the way back I realize what kind of test I’m really in for.
Mud, mud and more mud.
How could we possibly make a terrifying climb harder than it already is? Add pouring rain and a slick, muddy surface so that with every step forward you take at least two or three slip-and-slide ones back.
At first, I move forth daintily, trying to avoid a complete fall into the mud as I cautiously attempt to climb along the best line I can find. The problem is, mother nature don’t give a shit and before I know it I’m falling face down in the mud, clinging to the slanted earth with my fingers deeply embedded into the mud.
The nozzle on my water bottle is all but caked over in the rich, red clay and my new, clean (ha!) shirt is a pretty shade of filth. I’m lucky that one of the women I’ve been leap frogging with today is alongside for this section, because multiple times she has to push my ass up while I attempt to pull myself forward.
The pouring rain makes each step a dangerous one. And once I finally get to the top, I still have to go down.
Only way but one, the woman says as she butt slides her way down ahead of me. She’s totally right. I try to take soft, easy, calculated steps, but the ground is so sloppy and loose that it just gives way, sucking me down with it.
With mud on my face, in my ears and up my ass crack under the pouring rain, I wonder if I’m in an Oliver Stone film or in a 50 miler. Either way, this is the path I chose.
How often do you get to play in the mud? I ask myself.
Obviously, not often enough! YEEEEEE HAAAAAW!
Like a prize fighter just off his stool for the 12th round, I stumble into the Peterson’s aid station, rain and sweat streaking down my body.
Boy, am I happy to see you! I shout. I’ve been thinking about those Ginger Snaps for longer than I’d like to admit!
I grab a couple of them, even though they’re soggy and gross, and I force them down my throat while I get my bottle refilled. I look at my watch and know it’s going to be a struggle. I lost a lot of time on both Jarrow Beach sections and this last set of power lines. What’s worse is that the steepest climb of them all is yet to come and the rain is not letting up. If I want to get in under 11 hours I’m going to have to run all the runnable stuff as hard as I can.
At least the Red Bull and Ibuprofen are kicking in. My left arch and right hip are quieting, but my quads and butt, neck and shoulders are all taking a beating now too. In this tired, downtrodden state, the rest of the run will be an aid-station-to-aid-station test, and I won’t know if I can make the time until I inch a bit closer.
For now, all I can do is get through the aid stations as quickly as possible and give my best effort no matter the terrain.
I bust out of Peterson’s and take advantage of the rolling hills where I can, but once I get to the last power line section, I can’t help but think my time goal is doomed. Under all this rain, on top of all this slippery mud, there is simply no footing. I have no choice but to lie flat on my belly, in a leaning bear crawl position, and dig my hands into the side of the earth to pull myself up the hill.
The last and steepest of the climbs does all it can to knock me out, to put me out of my happy-misery. But it can’t. I signed up for this and I don’t care how much things hurt right now, I’m getting over this hill.
On the peak of the last climb I take a second to stretch my arms out wide, head pointed up towards the pounding rain. I laugh in the face of hardship and beat my chest before I mudslide down on my butt like a little kid.
I look at my watch and know I need to get to Chambers Grove soon. There, in my other drop bag, is another Red Bull. That, combined with the knowledge that I’ll only be 11 miles from the finish line might be enough to get me under 11 hours. But I gotta hurry.
Ahh, yes, but stupid me forgot about that ROAD CLIMB!!!
What was a long, happy, stretched out downhill coast the first time around is now a dooming, massive, impregnable power hike up what looks like forever.
I won’t make eleven hours. Shit. It’s just too much at this point.
*BIG FAT DEFEATED SIGH*
Oh well. I’ll still finish…
I’LL STILL FINISH.
Up, up, up I go.
Waaaaay ahead of me I see the silhouette of a girl who passed me around mile 5. I’m going to go catch her. I’m coming for ya, girl who passed me at mile 5! Here I come.
Head down, arms pumping.
Forget about the rain. Forget about the aches. Forget about the discomfort. You’re going to finish this thing and you’re going to feel so good about it for so long so just… keep… MOVING.
After what seems like forever, I’m finally at the top of the road and back on trail.
Oh yes how I love you, sweet, sweet trail!
I run as fast as I can (which, let’s admit, ain’t that fast really), taking advantage of every single downhill, despite the poor footing, while power hiking my ass off on every significant uphill section. It’s all or nothing now, only 8 miles to the finish.
And I have… (looking at my watch) an hour and thirty minutes to get in under 11?
Hot dog! I holler as I push through the pain and concentrate on high cadence and lots of arm pumping.
I quickly grab some grub at the Bull Run aid station, thank everyone there and move quickly through the rolling terrain. The rain continues to fall, but it’s less violent now and almost undetectable considering I’m nothing short of a muddy, soggy, sweaty mess.
A muddy, soggy, sweaty mess with a SMILE on his face and a pain in his ass! Ha!
She eluded me on the road, but ironically now just five miles from the finish, I see that same girl who passed me at mile five up ahead. I decide I have to pass her now.
Head down, arms pumping.
A few minutes later I’m cruising on by, exchanging happy salutations with her as she keeps her slower pace. I look down at my watch again and know that if I can get to Leimer Road with at least 40 minutes left, I might be able to break 11 hours. I say, “might” because the last three miles include a lot of technical terrain and another jagged rock field that will definitely slow my pace.
You’ll never know if you never try, I tell myself, and we know that the only thing worse than missing your goal is knowing you didn’t give your best effort.
HEAD DOWN. ARMS PUMPING.
I whiz through the Leimer Road aid station, falling just short of telling the volunteers I want to make love to you all! I don’t have time to tell them exactly how much I appreciate their being out here today, so a quick “THANKS I LOVE YOU” will have to do. No doubt, this race features grade-A race personnel. Every single volunteer I have come in to contact with today has been as helpful as he/she has been kind.
And let’s not forget, standing outside in the cold, pouring rain isn’t very fun if you’re not running over gorgeous terrain. I blow them all a kiss and charge down the multi-track trail which turns left and back on to the technical stuff along the St. Louis River.
I have about 30 minutes to get to the finish line now as I slowly and deliberately pick my way over rocky trail. I haven’t been using the GPS function at all today, knowing it would kill my battery, so I have no clue really how far I have yet to go. My body throbs and aches with each slowed step and when I squat down to go under a fallen tree blocking the trail, I realize just how seriously messed up my body is.
Getting back out of the squat takes all the effort I can find — serving as one final joke from mother nature and the Minnesota Voyageur before I am able to push on towards the final stretch.
Ha! Too bad the joke’s not on me today!
I bust out of the trail and onto the paved bike path in Carlton. The finish line is less than a mile away. I have fifteen minutes to make it there.
Oh boy, here it comes.
Why this happens to me so often on the longer, more spirited efforts I’ll never know, but I do know that I can’t fight it anymore.
Fucking cry, who cares. You deserve a good cry every now and then anyway.
I follow the yellow ribbons toward the right hand turn to Carlton High School.
And there it is.
There is that beautiful, glorious, triumphant finish line.
I did it.
I ran the Minnesota Voyageur 50 in 10 hours 51 minutes. I open up my arms, point my head to the sky and enjoy every last drop of rain falling on my face.
After the race I grabbed a quick shower inside Carlton High School (a great race bonus by the way!) and changed clothes so I could wait outside for Kirsten and Jim to finish. Seeing them on the out-and-back section was a real boost to my morale and I wanted to be sure I got to see them finish.
They came in at 12 hours and 40 minutes and we all shared a good hug, especially celebrating Jim’s first 50.
In fact, I hugged just about anyone who would hug me as they came across the finish line. There’s nothing quite like being witness to one’s ultra victory. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, spend some time at a finish line and watch the range of ecstasy flowing through the faces. You won’t regret it.
That night, back at our hotel, celebratory beers in hand, the three of us reminisced over our individual battles. Every single muscle in my body ached. For two whole days! Including muscles that have never ached during a run before (forearms, biceps, neck!)
Admittedly, I’ve never been beat up so badly by a race. But I was doing the Frankenstein walk like a champ.
As every enlightened sage and holy man has ever attested, to be whole, you must be broken.
Right now I’m about as whole as I can get.
Or at least I am until…
The next adventure…
It’s been over 72 hours now since I watched Jen Birkner cross the finish line at the Kettle Moraine 100 Mile Endurance Run, and the smile her accomplishment put on my face still stretches proudly across my cheeks.
Jen overcame the intense morning humidity, the marshy sauna of the meadows and over 50 miles of macerated, blistering feet to still cross the finish line like a champ, proving once again that the ultimate test of one’s abilities is the strength of his or her thoughts. Her achievement was mind over matter, relentless forward progress at its best.
And I couldn’t be more proud.
Jen’s accomplishment also makes me a perfect 3-for-3 in 100 mile pacing duties. And in each case, getting my runner to the finish line has required a great deal of focused energy and thoughtful preparation. Pacing gig number four is coming up at the end of the month as I pick up Siamak for the last 38 miles of his epic adventure on the grandest ultrarunning stage of them all — The Western States 100 — and thinking about what it takes to be a good pacer, I thought I would share some basic ideas that have helped me fulfill my duties thus far.
In no particular order, they are:
KNOW Your Runner
Before pacing someone, you should know if he or she prefers you run in front or back, if she likes to talk or keep quiet, if he wants to power hike the hills or charge right up them. You should know how she fuels. You should know what he expects out of you. There should be no surprises. Communication is key, and I would consider being able to read body language and emotion an essential element to that communication.
Be Comfortable Knowing This Is Not YOUR Race
Your own wants/needs/dreams have no place in your role as pacer. This is your runner’s race, and the pacer serves best as a shadow of his runner — a very cool, strong, receptive and determined shadow, of course.
Talk to People Who Have Paced Before
What better way to know what you are getting yourself into than to ask those who have already had the experience? In the lead-up to all my pacing, I have made it a point to pick the brains of those who have already succeeded in such a role. Race specificity is key too. Talk to those who have already run the course. Know what to expect ahead of time.
Know/Study the Course
Though this seems obvious, I mention it still because there are going to be times when the pacer must be the voice of reason for a super-tired runner, and if he or she knows all that the course will throw one’s way, this makes those future decisions just that much more informed.
Go Over the Game Plan with Your Runner BEFOREHAND
Really take the time to sit down with your runner and discuss his or her goals before the race. I think it’s important to know what he or she is thinking, what direction she wants to go. Remember, as a pacer, this isn’t your race. It’s your runner’s race, and his or her game plan is what needs to be followed. Knowing the A goals from the B and C goals will also help you make important decisions during the race that the runner may need some encouragement and/or help making herself.
Be Prepared for Whatever Nature Throws Your Way
At Kettle, for example, we knew that thunderstorms were a likely scenario. Though they never came, Jen and I discussed beforehand what we would do in the event of a thunderstorm. We talked about visualizing that situation, so that if it did happen, we would be ready for it and it would not get us down.
I liken this concept to the “rule of positivity” my friends and I used to practice back in our youthful *ahem* partying days. Nothing kills a buzz (running or dance club induced) quite like negative thoughts. Even when your runner is in a bad spot — and he likely will be at some point during a hundred mile race — try to focus on the positive as much as possible and leave negative thoughts for another time and place.
Think Before You Speak
This goes along with the previous point, but it is important enough to be singled out alone. People can interpret things in different ways, so before I say anything to my runner I try to imagine how she might hear what I’m saying. If anything I might say could be interpreted as a negative thought, I keep it to myself.
Know How to Do Split Math In Your Head
Have a watch. Pay attention to what time you leave each aid station. Be prepared to throw out split times, estimated arrival times and cut-off times so your runner can concentrate on just running and not have to fuss with calculations.
You Are Not Allowed to Hurt, Not Allowed to Complain
Your feet might ache. You might have a blister. You might have a chapped ass. That’s fine. Just don’t say anything about it. As a pacer, and following the “no negativity” rule, I think it’s best that you leave your own issues out of any conversation.
Get Plenty of Rest
Especially if you are going to be running overnight, I highly recommend you sleep as much during the day as possible so you are alert and thinking clearly during the hardest late night/early morning hours.
Monitor Your Runner’s Fueling
Ultimately, I think it is up to the runner to fuel himself properly, but it doesn’t hurt to monitor it as a backup, especially as the late hours and extended fatigue set in. A bonky runner is an unhappy runner, so it’s best to just avoid that altogether.
Keep Aid Station Stops Short and Efficient
It is quite easy to dabble at an aid station. A lot of time can be lost. When my runner and I are approaching an aid station, I make sure to go over everything we need and everything we need to do, out loud, so once we get there we’re not standing around scratching our heads. Apply Bodyglide, change socks, eat something… knowing what to do beforehand will make the stops quick and efficient.
Know the Basics of Foot Care
Having a good idea of how to treat battered, blistered, macerated feet will come in handy. Check out Fixing Your Feet for all the gnarly details.
Carry an Emergency Gel or Two
Ya just never know when you’re gonna need it. I also carry extra batteries, Ginger Chews and salt tabs.
Be Prepared for the Bad Patches and Fight Them with Simple Goals and Positivity
Inevitably, bad spots are going to come. It’s a hundred-friggin-miles, man! Just know that they are coming and be ready to fight them back with short, simple goals. Just getting to the next aid station is a classic cue that really works and keeps the focus on something doable when the rest of the race may seem overwhelming. I have found that it also helps to point out all the great things my runner has accomplished up to that point so that she has some positivity to fuel off of when things get tough.
Know When to Stretch the Truth
I don’t ever lie to my runner, but when she asks “How far to the next aid station?”, I will construct an illusion of truth by replying with a time range that offers hope, even if part of it is impossible. Oh, we’re about 10-20 minutes away, I will say, knowing that the low range is impossible. I think it just helps the runner to hear a low number when that is what he wants to hear, even if he doesn’t know it.
Be Your Runner’s Biggest Fan
Your runner needs you. That’s why you’re there. Take care of her. Encourage him. Do whatever it takes (and you should know this by already knowing your runner) to get her to keep moving one foot in front of the other. And if you need something to motivate you as pacer, let me tell you:
OH HOW SWEET IT IS to watch her cross the finish line knowing you had a role in her success!
Of course, I do not consider the above collection of notes to be the all encompassing way to go about pacing, but the tips I offer have all worked well for me. If you have anything to add, please feel free to drop a line in the comments section.
Last fall I cut more than 12 minutes from my previous best marathon time. Part of the reason for such improvement was due to increased core and leg strength. The rest, I am convinced, was because of my glorious summer of ultras.
With such a strong base established, by the time August came around and I was ready to put in 10 solid weeks of specific marathon speed training, my endurance engine was so robust that 26.2 miles at 7-minute pace felt short — exactly what I needed to to run my fastest race.
This year I plan to do even better. As I have proclaimed before: 2013 is the year I break 3 hours in the marathon. I hope to do it at Chicago on October 13th.
And so it will be again, with great fervor (and more intelligent training, especially regarding rest/recovery time), that I embark on yet another sunny summer of ultrarunning. Outside of the occasional fartlek, the next few months will feature mostly long and slow distance runs with a handful of short races thrown in for fun before tackling my summer target event: The Christmas in July 12 Hour Race, organized by my friends and fellow New Leaf Ultra Runners Brian, Ed and Terry.
In addition to the above, I am happy to announce that my personal training business, Iron Lung Fitness, is sponsoring Anastasia “Supergirl” Rolek’s 2013 Midwest Grandslam of Ultrarunning bid. Supergirl has graced these pages many times and I know she will represent ILF with the same focus and strength she does all of her events. Go SUPERGIRL!
But perhaps the most exciting development of this upcoming summer of ultras is the fact that I have TWO premier pacing positions to fill. The first will come June 1st and 2nd as I pace my friend Jen during the Kettle Moraine 100 Mile Endurance Run. Jen is a tough, focused athlete who trains with me, so I know getting to the finish line will be top priority for both of us.
Then, at the end of June, Siamak, another friend of mine and recurring Run Factory persona, will be taking on the biggest, baddest, most historic 100 mile race in the entire western hemisphere: THE WESTERN STATES 100 MILE ENDURANCE RUN!!!
And yep, you guessed it. I am the lucky fella who will pace him to the finish! Indeed, making sure Siamak circles the track at Placer High School will be my sole reason to live come the weekend of June 29th.
Running! If there’s any activity happier, more exhilarating, more nourishing to the imagination, I can’t think of what it might be. In running the mind flees with the body, the mysterious efflorescence of language seems to pulse in the brain, in rhythm with our feet and the swinging of our arms.
–Joyce Carol Oates
The weather has turned for the better, my legs are feeling fresh and I welcome the mysterious efflorescence of language to pulse in my brain alongside my constantly moving feet.
All this rugged trail running is making me tough and leathery. I feel stronger. Gettin’ dirty. But being so often bombarded by nature’s beauty is also leaving me emotionally vulnerable. It’s hard for me to not stop, to soak in my surroundings, to dissociate from time and to just be in the moment.
I think that’s a perfect mix of cojones and heart.
My running club organized a 50K (31 mile) fun run through Wisconsin’s southern unit of the Kettle Moraine forest yesterday. With the Ice Age Trail 50 Miler just 7 weeks away, I knew logging some long hours on the actual route I’ll be running during the race would be nothing but beneficial, so I took the whole day to really immerse myself in the trail.
Holy bejeebus. It’s as beautiful as it is tough.
The elevation gain from my forest adventure only totaled about 2,400 feet, but the constant up and down rolling nature of the moraines (a result of the last ice age glacier melts, thus the name) is so relentless that I never could find a consistent rhythm to my stride. Walk up hill a little, fly down hill a little, walk up hill a little, fly down, and so on. WHERE ARE THE FLATS?
I never found them, but I did find out that Wisconsin is home to one of the most luscious forests I’ve ever seen. It was like running on Endor! I kept anticipating an Ewok ambush or stumbling across one of the Empire’s hidden bases. Green, green, green!
And the sounds: loons, bullfrogs, crickets, swallows, robins, my tired footfalls.
There were several moments along the trail when I thought, Man this is hard! How am I ever going to run 50 miles on it if I’m struggling through 31? I had moments where I felt awful, but I also had moments where I felt euphoric, and the switch was made within minutes.
At one point I looked down to notice I’d “run” a 15 minute mile. That’s some real humbling shit right there, especially to a guy who touts himself as a regional class speedster. 15 minute mile!?! Good grief.
But I later realized, if having to suck up some slow miles is what it takes to become part of nature’s truest gifts, then I’m all for it. In the end, it took me 6 hours and 21 minutes to complete my 31 mile Kettle adventure. That’s the longest run I’ve ever logged to date. To put that time in perspective, my current 50K trail PR is 5:15, and I barely gave any effort in attaining that time, as it too was just a fun run.
Yet I can’t help but think 6 hours and 21 minutes still isn’t enough time to sufficiently gallivant through such luscious forest. It surely didn’t feel like I was out there that long. And despite the aches in my glutes and the pains in my quads, I didn’t want to escape the canopy. I wanted to stay in there as long as I could.
Time stops in there. And in a world where time is often my enemy, suddenly I don’t mind reevaluating my expectations.